Written by Ron Noon at 21:40 on Thursday, November 27th 2008
One of the recurrent themes addressed in these blogs will be the “politics” of sugar. This simple far too much taken for granted everyday commodity has historically been the most intensely political of products and today’s debates around sugar’s links to obesity and “globesity” and the “politics of health” are simply the latest manifestation of the connections between what Sidney Mintz, the “doyen” of sugar studies, termed “sweetness and power”. Unlike the pure granulated crystals in that bowl on the breakfast table, sugar’s politics are as unrefined as the cane grasses that sway in the tropical breezes of the Antilles or the ugly mangel wurzel sugar beets that grow in wet Fenland England. In 1493 on his second trip to the New World, Columbus transferred cane from the islands off the coast of Africa to what is now Haiti and the Dominican Republic and arguably inaugurated Globalisation centuries before the G word became common currency. Haiti and the Dominican Republic are the subjects of the two films that this blog will concentrate attention on. But first of all what about the much smaller budget film that the Love Lane Lives project is centred around? (Film making is a great means of ensuring that Love Lane lives really do live on!)
“Bitter-sweet film on Liverpool’s 300 years of sugar trade screened at the Tate.” That was the headline above an essay written in the Liverpool Daily Post by Vicky Anderson on October 30th 2007, the very day that our film was premiered. She went on to describe “the boys from the whitestuff” as the generations of families who enjoyed jobs for life at the Vauxhall’s Tate & Lyle sugar refinery and how “historian Ron Noon’s decade-long obsession with the Liverpool sugar industry led to the making of the film”. My sugarcentricity and “obession” with the white stuff clearly provided the impetus and drive towards seeing the possibilities of film and recording the lives and experiences of former refinery workers from the “Lane” but the project would have imploded if it had not been for the most timely of interventions by a talented and young local fim maker, Leon Seth.
Leon was ably assisted by Maggie Skilling, one of my former students, and together we worked frantically over the summer of 2007 to complete a deadline that we had lagged far behind. The fresh drive and direction produced a quality first film that we all feel inordinately proud of. Leon produced and directed it but like Maggie he too became addicted to this legal and achingly addictive drug and soon became familiar with its nefarious history in this its seventh century of global expansion. Our film was able to explore “how Henry Tate – who introduced the sugar cube to Britain and went on to found the Tate Gallery – became Britain’s Rockefeller. It traces how after 109 years of refining in Liverpool’s Love Lane, and the devastation of the Vauxhall community following the closure of the refinery, the phoenix eventually rose from the ashes in the guise of the Eldonian Housing Cooperative. The film also captures the historic 25th anniversary re-union of the Tate pensioners in April 2006”.
“Beat the beet, keep the cane” was “the unsuccessful mantra of the refinery workers involved in the ten-year struggle to keep Henry Tate’s mother plant open” and its closure in April, 1981, was the end of over 300 years of sugar cane refining on Merseyside. At the end of the seventeenth century Liverpool was a sleepy insignificant fishing village that had been eclipsed by Chester for four hundred years. It was suddenly transformed by sugar and slaves, experiencing transatlantic take off in the following century. Anderson then quotes me as saying that “the remarkable thing about this project was not just sugar, but the extra-ordinary lives of ordinary refinery workers who star in the film”. That theme of “extraordinary ordinary lives” will pop up regularly on this site. “This project has lots of historical curiosity value but it has wider ramifications for ongoing debates on the politics of food and globalization. It’s also a vital record of the people who struggled against a major multi-national to protect not just their own livelihoods but a whole community. It’s an amazing story and Liverpool is right at the heart of it.”
There are many statements about how Tates was “a good firm to work for” and unlike my two sweet fightin’ mentors, Albert E Sloane, and John McLean, the two most politically class consious of those interviewed in the film, no references made to the chicaneries of the transnational deal maker. That said “controversial” issues were raised in the film, not least the culpability of the Sugar Giant for strategically disinvesting from its “mother plant” and hiding behind the complexities of Sugar diplomacy and the egregious European Common Agricultural Policy. That however was not enough to have provoked a “lobby” of Tate and Lyle directors to chant “Tate not State” and “No to the Food Faddists” outside the Tate Gallery that cold Tuesday night. Love Lane Lives lives on and the sugar lobby has not attempted (yet) to obstruct or “blackball” our film! Indeed at every subsequent screening we have had remarkably favourable comments and great encouragement to produce a second film which will involve local primary school children close to the former refinery site. Then again our purposes were explicitly educational and as a teacher and researcher I’m not in the business of commercial film making. That fact allied to the hyper sensitivity of the American sugar lobby is perhaps the main reason why the other two sugar films have had a very different reception to Love Lane Lives.
So with that kind of thinking in mind I decided to make these opening comments at a showing of our film back in July at “News from Nowhere” in Bold Street!
[“Before I show you our sugar film, it’s important to tell you about some other sugar films that have aroused considerable controversy in the last 12 months. Unless you are sugarcentic you will probably have never heard of them except perhaps this first one.
If you can elevate ITV 3s soap opera based on a Cuban American sugar family to film status, then CANE starring Jimmy Smitts is one that caused a big stir in the Sunshine state of Florida this time last year. It’s a big hair, Dallas style production, but it has a lot to do with the generally out of sight and out of mind cultivation of sugar cane in the Everglades Agricultural Area. (EAA)
Then there’s a much more serious film Directed by Bill Haney and narrated by Paul Newman entitled THE PRICE OF SUGAR which portrays the near slavery conditions of Haitian workers in the sugar bateyes in the Dominican Republic. Both CANE AND THE PRICE OF SUGAR have more in common than a sugary theme. They are linked by the name of a Cuban American family called the Fanjuls. The Fanjuls have extensive sugar cane interests in the Dominican Repubic as well as back home in the Sunshine State. That said it’s the Dominican Republic’s Vicini sugar family that has used a Washington DC law firm to sue the makers of THE PRICE OF SUGAR for defamation! The film became the victim of a “Cease and Desist” order.
The third film which also focuses on the abuse of the abject descendants of Toissaint l’Ouverture, (the Black Jacobin who led slaves in a revolt against the mighty French Empire at the beginning of the nineteenth century), is produced by filmmaker Amy Serrano who believes the Fanjuls have used their awesome power to block the showing of her documentary SUGAR BABIES. (That title’s not to be confused with the band Sugar babes!) It’s a film which is very critical of the Fanjul’s company Flo-Sun Inc., and on June 27th last year at a private showing it caused uproar. It was shown at the Florida International University in Miami but made headlines when media showed up with the Dominican consul, who denounced the portrayal of his country. Earlier on this year it was withdrawn from the Miami International Film Festival.
“I feel like my film has been blackballed” says Serrano. It was rejected from the festival, despite initial support from the festival’s organizers and acclaim at more than a dozen other festivals worldwide.
But the biggest and best example of a sugar film, before I modestly show our local film, is one that has been indefinitely shelved by Universal Film Studios. It was to have been called SUGARLAND and premiered this year, starring Robert de Niro and Jodie Foster. It would have been the first time they played together since Taxi-Driver in 1976. It has now been shelved. What was it going to be about? Surprise, surprise, the Fanjuls. 90 crates of documents in a West Palm Beach court house are testimony to a series of “class action” court cases about the use and abuse of H2 (migrant workers) on the sugar cane fields of the EAA. This implicated a number of sugar interests not just the Fanjuls and when Marie Brenner wrote her seminal essay “In the Kingdom of Big Sugar” in Vanity Fair, February 2001, De Niro bought the film rights. It would have been a blockbuster so why has it been shelved? Does it have anything to do with the politics of sugar?
So remember when we reflect on this far too much taken for granted everyday commodity, the words of Eric Williams in Capitalism and Slavery. “Strange that an article so sweet and necessary for human existence should have occasioned such crimes and misery”. He was wrong about “necessary” but sugar’s crimes and misery are tragically not just historical but contemporary. This is not only a tainted product but for over 500 years it has been in the words of Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz “Capitalism’s favoured child”.]
So that’s my first blog entry, somewhat incomplete and certainly leaving a good deal more unfinished sugar business to be blogged. Remember all you sugar lobbyists who may gain access to this site that “the only completely unbiased sugar historian is the recording angel, whose works are as yet unpublished and who according to Mark Twain had opinions which to Satan might appear like prejudices”! That’s a great cue for another provocative statement from an American sugar blogger called Phillip Day:
“It’s whiter than heroin, sweeter than your fiancee, more soluble than the national debt, and more pernicioius than nicotine, because like a true demon, this little beauty comes in a million disguises, and always dresses like a friend.” Perhaps I’ll ask my students to add Discuss to that quotation and provide some tentative answers for next time.